It’s not easy today to remain hopeful and encouraged and confident about the future of our society and the world as a whole. Things are a mess. For every one step forward it seems like we take two steps backwards. For every victory that is won for truth and morality and the Christian faith, it seems as if there is a multitude of defeats. In his excellent commentary on Revelation Dennis Johnson puts it this way:
“When evil is everywhere and the world is ripe for judgment, can God protect his own? When economies crash, when civil order falters and the social fabric frays, when restraint and respect give way to rude aggression and random violence, when greed and animal appetite reign supreme, this question weighs on the hearts of God’s people: Can God keep Jesus’ little flock safe as they stand, it seems, defenseless in the crossfire? On the one hand, Christian believers will be targeted for attack by people who hate our King, his purity, and even his mercy; on the other, God calls us to stay involved in the broader community, even as it rushes pell-mell toward its rendezvous with God’s wrath” (155-56).
It’s an important and pressing question, but I don’t want to dwell on the dark and discouraging elements in our world. I don’t need to. The simple truth is that all of you are just as aware of how bad it is as I am. It wouldn’t accomplish much for me to rehearse the countless ways in which the fabric of society as a whole is coming unraveled right before our eyes.
No, my aim today is to speak words of encouragement, words that remind us all that no matter how dismal the prospects for society may appear, we know who is in charge. We know that the risen Lord Jesus Christ is sovereign over every man and molecule in existence. And we know it because the Bible over and over again tells us so.
Take for instance the recent natural calamities, whether it be the two hurricanes that struck Houston and Florida, or the wildfires in California, or the snow and ice in the northeast, or volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that we read about on almost a daily basis. What are we to make of such phenomena? Here is what Scripture says:
“He covers the heavens with clouds; he prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry. . . . He makes peace in your borders; he fills you with the finest of the wheat. He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow” (Psalm 147:8-9, 14-18; see Psalm 148:1-12).
There are several passages in Job that affirm God’s complete sovereignty over all of nature, both on earth and in the heavens above.
“He stretches out the north over empty space, and hangs the earth on nothing. He wraps up the waters in his clouds; and the cloud does not burst under them. He obscures the face of the full moon, and spreads his cloud over it. He has inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters, at the boundary of light and darkness. The pillars of heaven tremble, and are amazed at his rebuke. He quieted the sea with his power, and by his understanding he shattered Rahab. By his breath the heavens are cleared; his hand has pierced the fleeing serpent. Behold, these are the fringes of his ways; and how faint a word we hear of him! But his mighty thunder, who can understand?” (Job 26:7-14)
“Keep listening to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth. Under the whole heaven he lets it go, and his lightning to the corners of the earth. After it his voice roars; he thunders with his majestic voice, and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard. God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’ likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour. He seals up the hand of every man, that all men whom he made may know it. Then the beasts go into their lairs, and remain in their dens. From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds. By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen.” (Job 37:2-24; see also Psalm 104; 105:16; Job 38:8-41; Jer. 10:12-13; 14:22; Amos 4:7).
Or consider God’s sovereignty over our daily lives and the plans we make for each day
“A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” (Proverbs 20:24)
“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21)
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. . . . Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:13-15).
Many are ready to concede that God is sovereign over the beginning of life but they do not like the idea that God is sovereign over the time and manner of its end. But note the following:
“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39)
“The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 12:6)
“Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16).
God is sovereign over everything:
“[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (Ephesians 1:11)
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psalm 115:3)
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2)
“All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35)
Many are happy to concede that God is in charge when it comes to events in nature, but what about the choices and decisions made by us, by human beings? Consider these texts:
“Then God said to him [Abimelech] in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6).
Here we see that God exerts control over the decision-making of Abimelech and restrains him from having illicit sexual relations with Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Some argue that God cannot do that. They say he cannot intrude on the human will and prevent a free moral agent from committing abuse or an atrocity. Yet we see from this story that God can surely prevent someone from sinning against someone else if he so chooses.
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1).
Again, God’s sovereignty over the will/heart of the king is seen in his determination to turn that will or to direct the king’s choices in accordance with whatever God pleases. And yet the king (or any person) is still morally responsible to God for the decisions he/she makes.
“In the first year of Cyrus the king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing . . .” (Ezra 1:1).
God moved on (“stirred up”) the heart of the pagan king Cyrus to issue a decree that the Jews should be free to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (see also Ezra 6:22; 7:27). There are numerous other texts that describe how God exerted his will on and over the will of others so that his ultimate purpose might be achieved. See Deut. 2:30; Joshua 11:20; Judges 7:2-3,22; 1 Sam. 14:6,15,20; 2 Sam. 17:14; 1 Kings 12:15; 20:28-29; 2 Chron. 13:14-16; Acts 4:27-28; 2 Cor. 8:16-17; Rev. 17:17.
You may remember the story from Greek mythology of Atlas. He and his brother Menoetius sided with the Titans in their war against the pantheon of Greek gods. When the Titans were defeated, many of them (including Menoetius) were confined to Tartarus, but Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the western edge of Gaia (the Earth) and hold up the sky on his shoulders, to prevent the two from resuming their primordial embrace. A common misconception today is that Atlas was forced to hold the Earth on his shoulders, but Classical art shows Atlas holding the celestial spheres, not a globe.
As you look at pictures of Atlas, he is shrugging. He appears almost to be buckling under the weight of the world, barely able to maintain his grip and keep things in place. But not Jesus Christ. By his omnipotent power and infinite wisdom he easily upholds all things in place and is guiding this crazy world to its proper consummation, when he will be glorified and honored as Lord over all!
This is the source of our comfort in a seemingly chaotic and crazy world. This is the foundation for our hope and security when everything appears to be unraveling before our eyes. The sovereign Christ rules over all, including you.